Leadership Turnover and International Crisis

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0001-5652-4231
Wang, Chen, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Potter, Philip, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Owen, John, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Copeland, Dale, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Wolford, Scott, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin

How do foreign adversaries react to leadership turnover in a rival state? In contrast to the conventional wisdom that foreign adversaries are likely to probe the type of their new counterparts or to explore the newcomers' weakness by initiating challenges, this dissertation demonstrates that foreign adversaries' reaction depends largely on the anticipated direction of the new leader’s foreign policy preference shift in relation to the previous administration.

I argue that foreign adversaries have incentive to challenge a new leader in their rival state only when the newcomer is perceived as being more hawkish than the predecessor. I theorize that this occurs through three vectors: first by triggering the challenger’s fear of suffering an immediate and possibly unacceptable loss, second by lowering the challenger’s tolerance for any drop in relative capability due to the target’s gaining of experience in the future, and third, by reducing, if not eliminating, the challenger’s concerns about opportunity costs of any early confrontation. The fear can cause a status-quo challenger to opt for crisis initiation as either a costly signal for resolve or an attempt to preempt an unavoidable conflict, whereas the latter two forces incentive a revisionist challenger to act quick to lock in a better payoff that is available “today” before the hawk becomes more experienced.

Statistical analysis of a sample of rival dyads characterized by democratically elected leaders on the target side during the post-WWII period yields strong evidence that supports my argument. Relying primarily on the left-right spectrum of political ideology as an operationalization of the hawkishness of leader's policy preference, I find that only leaders who are more right-leaning than their predecessor tend to experience initially high probabilities of being targeted in militarized disputes before declining over time.

To get a fuller picture of the impact of leadership turnover on interstate relations, I also investigate how cooperative interactions between national leaders evolve over one’s tenure. Using a machine-coded event dataset, I find that a foreign adversary tends to initiate more cooperative attempts, in both quantitative (the number of actions) and qualitative (measured as the average intensity score of all cooperative actions) terms, toward leaders who are more left-leaning than their predecessor, but only as their time in office increases. I attribute this pattern to the adversary’s recognition of the existence of a hawk’s advantage in clearing domestic barriers to adopting conciliatory policies toward enemies, on one hand, and the adversary’s preference to deal with a more dovish foreign counterpart in the long-term, on the other. These two motives incentivize the adversary to not rush into seeking substantive cooperation with a new dove, as such moves may risk undermining the new dove’s domestic support if she does reciprocate or harming the adversary’s own reputation at home if there is no reciprocation.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Leadership Turnover, International Security
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